How to Throw Dinner for 4 on a $20 Budget
Also, which kitchen appliances are a waste of money (and counter space).
Eight years ago Lindsay Ostrom was just a fourth-grade teacher who liked to eat and share recipes. From that hobby grew what is now one of the most widely followed food blogs: Pinch of Yum.
Along the way, she gained enough regular readers to start selling ads and hire a support team. The blog turned into such a successful business that she and her husband have since launched spinoffs, Food Blogger Pro and WP Tasty, to help others do the same.
Ostrom left teaching in 2014, but she still likes to eat and to share recipes — the site now has nearly 1,000 of them. MONEY talked with Ostrom about her process for developing recipes, the most useless kitchen gadgets, and binging on fresh peaches. The following interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
How much do you spend on groceries each week?
For ingredients I need for what I’m cooking at home, I probably spend about $150 a week. That doesn’t include the ingredients we buy for the photo shoots for those recipes, and that’s maybe an additional $75 a week. That happens off-site, not at my house.
When I first started blogging, I was pretty strict with myself. I had a budget of maybe $75 a week for my husband and me. We weren’t making money from the blog at that time, whereas now we do make money, so it’s like putting money back into the business to buy groceries.
What’s your routine to get a recipe ready for the studio?
I’ll test recipes on my days where I’m working at home, which is usually four out of five days a week. At the end of the week, hopefully I’ll have one or two recipes that I ended up liking and usually those will get tested at least one or two more times before we buy the ingredients to shoot them the following week.
By that point we have the recipe nailed down and I’ve usually styled it — how it looks on the plate, or what sauces look best off to the side. On a shoot day, we’ll do maybe three recipes in a day.
If you’re testing a recipe that many times, what do you do with all the food? Do you have time to eat it all?
That’s a really great question. We give a lot of it away.
On a recent week, for example, I had these raspberry bars and I’m trying to get the recipe just right. I made them on Monday, and they turned out alright, but then I made them again on Tuesday. And I’d sort of strategically planned to test that recipe again that day so I could bring it with me when we went over to a friend’s house.
We’re giving stuff to neighbors and to team members. At the studio, we have people in the studios around us. So if I have a big plate of styled tacos that I just did a big photo shoot for, I will walk across the hall with this huge food tray of ready-to-eat tacos at 3 p.m. and give away snacks.
So basically what I’m hearing is that I need to move in next to someone who’s a food blogger.
What’s something you eat that’s a cheap guilty pleasure?
I really love a good frozen pizza. even the really cheap ones that have the cardboard-type crust. Sometimes it turns cracker thin and it’s like, yeah, that was just want I need in that moment.
I’d also say cereal. We don’t eat a lot of cereal for breakfast, but for a snack or a dessert — if I’m craving something cold and crunchy, and sweet.
Yeah, I love a good late-night cereal bowl, too. OK, if I give you $20 to host a dinner party for four, what’s on the menu?
My first go-to would probably be pasta, especially if it’s winter or fall. Pasta is cheap, and I feel like it’s in that category of things you can make just as well at home as in a restaurant. If you have the time, making it from scratch is definitely an affordable option and it’d be super fancy.
I’d probably just buy some dry pasta and whip together a really simple sauce with butter, garlic, and white wine. Maybe get some protein in there and then add some cream and herbs. All the sudden you have this beautiful, affordable dish that can feed a lot of people.
In the summertime, I love to entertain with tacos, because they require minimal ingredients and it also allows people to create something that works for them. You can have beans, some protein like shredded chicken, salsa, dry spices, tortillas, and shredded cabbage. And people can customize their own.
What are your favorite kitchen appliances — the ones that are definitely worth the money?
At home we have a Blendtec and at the studio we have a Vitamix. They’re several hundred dollars, but I use them multiple times a day. There’s actually a screen on the Blendtec that shows you how many times you’ve used it. We’ve had ours for maybe three years and it’s closing in on 2,000 uses.
You can get a blender for $20 or $30, you can even find a little nicer one for $50, but if you like healthy cooking and want to have alternative ways to make things like sauces or dressings, a high-powdered blender is going to be worth your money.
Any appliances you wish you hadn’t spent money on?
A lot of people might disagree with me on this, but I don’t use my KitchenAid mixer all that often. I don’t bake a lot, and I know there are other ways to use it, but I don’t have those systems in place and so I never think to use it.
I also try to stay away from any tool that can only be used for one single purpose. For example, we have this strawberry slicer. The three times I used it, it worked really well. But that’s the only thing it’s for. It’s literally shaped like a strawberry.
That reminds me of all those gadgets you see at Bed, Bath, and Beyond. All the sudden you find yourself thinking you need some special egg peeler when you’ve never had trouble with that before.
(Laughs.) Exactly. And it’s not even that they’re not great. It’s just the mental energy it takes to remember you have it and go get it out when you do that one specific task — it isn’t worth keeping it around to clutter up your drawer.
Do you have any good stories of kitchen failures?
Oh yes. I have many.
The one that comes to mind was probably one or two years after I started blogging. It was around Christmas time and I was making a toffee. It’s crispy and salty and sweet — it’s really good. You start by boiling the butter and sugar on the stove to make the base of the toffee. Then you pour that in a pan and put the pan in the oven with saltine crackers in it. So I’d done that.
But I didn’t realize that I hadn’t turned the burner on my stove off from the first step. I don’t know how I didn’t notice. So once the toffee was done, I put the pan back on the stove; and I have Christmas music playing and I’m doing my little chocolate drizzle on top. And it literally exploded. There was this loud bang and I was terrified. It was a 9×13 glass pan — just shards everywhere.
And then it was a disaster to clean up, because it’s toffee. When it’s hot it’s sticky but then as it cools it gets hard. We were finding tiny shards in the corners and cracks of our kitchen for days.
Is there a dish that’s not worth the time or money to make at home? Something you just always order out?
For me, sushi is just a get-it-when-you-go-out item. You can make it at home, but you need the rolling mats and ideally a special knife. And it requires a trip to a different grocery store to get sushi-grade fish. I’d rather just go out for it, because of the cost of the equipment, and the fish itself, and the inconvenience of gathering all that.
You just put together this awesome guide to prepping freezer meals, and all the dishes sound good. But I noticed a lot of them have a common requirement for cooking: the Instant Pot. So do I really need to jump on this bandwagon?
I do love the Instant Pot! I don’t like it for things that are obviously better made on the stove or in the oven, like baking or a nicely pan-seared chicken breast. But what I think it does best is the day-to-day quick stuff — getting dinner on the table, or making meal prep for the week with very little hands-on time.
I love that I can pop something in and take the dog for a walk and come back to a meal that’s all set to go.
You’re about to go on maternity leave. Give me a recipe that you lived off through the past nine months.
I’ve eaten a lot of peaches in the last nine months. They’ve been so good this summer and I just keep buying them in bulk.
In terms of a recipe, I’m currently loving these mega burritos which are stuffed with cauliflower walnut “taco meat” — it’s actually meatless — and guacamole, roasted sweet potatoes, salsa and maybe cheese or vegan queso. They’re so versatile, so filling, and so yummy.
Are there any food or drink items that you cut out of your diet during pregnancy and are dying to have?
I’m pretty excited to eat sushi again, and a glass of wine sounds nice. But the thing I’m probably most excited about is allowing myself to sneak bites of the raw cookie dough next time I bake.